Waiting to Wed Where It Matters
D.C. Couples On the Threshold Of Legal Unions On Home Turf

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

When David and Eric Akridge's 6-year-old son, Max, set up a lemonade stand last summer, his fathers encouraged him to donate a portion of the proceeds to charity. "Do something good with it," they said.

Max already had a good cause in mind. He wanted to help make it possible for his daddies to get married, he said.

And so the Human Rights Campaign, the country's biggest gay rights political advocacy group, got Max's $50 contribution for its marriage equality drive.

Max's wish soon might come true. The District is poised to become the seventh U.S. jurisdiction to allow same-sex marriage. Last week, D.C. Council member David Catania (I) introduced a bill that says "any person . . . may marry any other eligible person regardless of gender." Although the measure has generated some opposition, the bill has 10 co-sponsors and is expected to pass the D.C. Council easily.

Catania doesn't expect an avalanche of weddings, although he points out that about 800 same-sex couples are registered as domestic partners in the District.

Many have married elsewhere, traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to destinations selected not for their charm and beauty but for their marriage laws.

But other D.C. couples have chosen to wait. Not because they have no desire for marriage, with its financial protections and security. They wear rings on their left hands, co-own houses and name each other in their wills. But because they wanted to marry here, where they live, not in some distant state where they have no connection. Or because they saw no practical reason to wed as long as the District didn't recognize their unions, which it began doing only this summer. Still others were considering weddings in gay-friendly locales and now are thrilled they might not have to incur the expense and hassle after all.

Aisha Mills and Danielle Moodie, who became engaged in June, are filling a thick planner with lists of caterers, dresses and invitations to their August wedding.

Paul Cooper and Michael Ulrich had a ceremony they call a wedding last year in Florida, a state where same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned. If Catania's bill passes, they will have a legal ceremony here.

David Akridge and his partner, Eric, have been waiting 21 years for the right to marry.

They have been together since 1988, when they met at a rental car company where they both worked. They moved in together a month after their first date on April 23, a date they now commemorate as their anniversary. Eventually they bought a house near Dupont Circle.

"We've approximated a marriage," said David, 42, who works in human resources and finance for a nonprofit group. "We've exchanged rings. Eric has changed his name. We have a child."

Eric, who is 47 and became a stay-at-home dad when they adopted Max, chimed in, "The only thing that's missing is a piece . . ."

"A piece of paper," said David, finishing his partner's thought in the way married couples do. "And the rights to go with it."

Their desire to marry took on an added urgency when Max came into their lives. They had discussed it for years, especially after Vermont recognized same-sex civil unions in 2000 and marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004.

But it always seemed pointless, as long as their union had no legal status at home.

Max occasionally asks his dads why they don't get married, like the straight parents of his friends and other gay couples the family knows who have had weddings without government recognition.

"I explained we have everything they have and want to do it when the government recognizes it as equal," said Eric.

They would like to marry on April 23, their first-date anniversary.

"We could go to Iowa, I guess," said David. "But we've waited 21 years for this. I'd like for it to be a meaningful experience."

* * *

Kathryn Hamm is in the business of making weddings meaningful. Her mother founded the company now called gayweddings.com after Hamm and her partner were planning their 1999 "union," as the invitations called it, and couldn't find gay-appropriate photo albums, cake figurines and other items. Hamm now runs the business out of Arlington County.

She has watched language evolve with attitudes. Terms like commitment ceremony are becoming passe; more couples say they are having a wedding, whether their vows are legally sanctioned or not. More refer to their partners as husband or wife.

Nobody knows why, but lesbians outnumber gay men by about two to one among the 81,000 couples who have been married since the Netherlands ushered in same-sex marriage eight years ago, according to Joseph Chamie, a demographer with the Center for Migration Studies who has studied the issue. About 31,000 same-sex couples have been married in the United States, Chamie said, more than half in California last year during the five months it was legal before voters repealed it.

Rea Carey and her partner were among them. The executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a longtime District resident, Carey said that having to travel out of state is not only expensive but far different than having a wedding at home.

"When a couple gets married, they envision what that day will be like," she said. "It often includes a place of meaning for them. Maybe it's where they met, or had their first picnic, or where they worship. But they should be able to be the decider about that meaningful place. Many couples in D.C. are being denied that choice."

* * *

Paul Cooper and Michael Ulrich have discussed marriage many times since they met four years ago through an online dating site.

Cooper, 47, a self-employed consultant, argued for going someplace where it's legal. They contemplated Canada and Spain, Massachusetts and Iowa.

But Ulrich, 44, who works for the University of Maryland, always batted down the idea.

"It's not going to be recognized in D.C.," he'd say. "Why bother?"

Last summer, they went ahead and had a ceremony that they call a wedding. Friends and family joined them at Epcot Center in Orlando for a ceremony with the theme "Goofy for Love." D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, a longtime friend, officiated. Goofy made an appearance. The couple exchanged rings fashioned like interlocking jester hats.

Their gay friends remind them it's not legal. One calls their union a fake marriage.

They say they will marry for real when it becomes legal in the District.

But Ulrich isn't investing too much hope in it, because Congress has thwarted local laws in the past.

"I'm skeptical Congress will let D.C. do this," he said. "I don't want to give a lot of time and energy to people who have the power to disappoint me."

But Cooper is convinced that it is imminent.

"It feels like completing a circle, to get married here in the city where we have made our homes and made our lives," he said. "We are not part of any community in Spain. We're part of this community."

* * *

Aisha Mills and Danielle Moodie wore their fanciest dresses on the rainy June night when they dined at Perry's, the Adams Morgan restaurant where they went on their first date after being introduced by a mutual friend.

The same waiter who had served them five years earlier approached with a plate of sushi. Nestled amid the raw fish was a solitaire diamond ring that Mills had bought for the woman she wants to spend her life with.

Their friends call them "Danisha."

"Like Brangelina," said Mills, 31, a public affairs consultant.

They registered as domestic partners in December and got engaged less than three months after the D.C. Council voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. They thought that they would obtain a marriage license in Connecticut, but now they expect to get one at the Wilson Building. The ceremony will be at Moodie's parents' home on Long Island.

In some ways, they are taking a very traditional approach to a wedding themed around Hollywood and "The Great Gatsby."

"We're not having a commitment ceremony. It's a marriage," said Moodie, 29, who does government relations on Capitol Hill on behalf of New York City. "We're not partners, we're fiancées."

As they shop for vendors, they make clear that there will be two brides and no grooms. Their antennae are up for slights.

"We don't want any negative energy that day," said Moodie. "If there's even a bit of negativity, we're done."

Even selecting a honeymoon spot is fraught with potential peril.

"What if I fall ill, and she can't be by my bedside?" Moodie asked, pondering what could happen if they go to a state where their union isn't recognized. "We're racking our brains trying to find a gay-friendly place. We're in the midst of our planning, and it's fun and exciting. But it's got sad moments, because we're not just like everyone else."

Still, they feel that the stars are aligned for them: The law is widely expected to be in effect before their August wedding.

"We are the generation that hopefully will be able to live a whole, holistic life as a gay couple," said Mills.

"It couldn't be a better time in our lives," added Moodie. "It couldn't be a better time in our society. Everything is just right."

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